Water Aficionados Still Seek Healing At Berkeley Springs
This story originally aired in the Oct. 7, 2022 episode of Inside Appalachia.
Every couple weeks, Lauren Lee stuffs a few dozen gallon jugs into a big black laundry bag. She brings it to a covered pavilion right in the middle of Berkeley Springs State Park, which itself is right in the middle of downtown Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.
She chooses one of two brick water fountains and begins to fill her jugs, one by one, with water drawn from the seven underground springs.
“I like coming down here. I always meet new people. I’ve never been able to do this anywhere I’ve ever lived,” Lee said.
She doesn’t just come here to socialize though.
“We have well water where we live, so it’s a lot easier to use this in our machines, like for coffee,” Lee said. “And for the plants, because our water kills our plants.”
The water is free. But of course, it wouldn’t be much more expensive to just buy water at Kroger or Dollar General. It would certainly be more convenient. No empty jugs or laundry bags necessary.
But the water Lee draws from these springs has something store-bought water does not.
“I feel like this is part of the healing and just the nutrients I'm getting from the earth,” she said.
People have been coming to Berkeley Springs for centuries, looking for a healing. It was native people who apparently introduced Europeans to its medicinal properties. The springs were already such a popular destination by the mid-18th century that a young surveyor named George Washington made sure to stop when he visited the area.
Washington would return a few times — once to cure his rheumatic fever and later with his wife Martha and her daughter Patsy, hoping to treat the girl’s seizures.
In 1776 — when Washington was probably busy with other concerns — the Virginia General Assembly established a town around the springs. They called it “Bath,” after the spa town in England. That began a flurry of development in town, and some buildings from that time still survive.
There’s the two-story Roman Bathhouse, built in the 1780s. For a small fee you can still enjoy a half-hour soak in a 750-gallon tub filled with spring water. The Gentlemen's Spring — where you find the drinking fountains — arrived in the 1800s. So did the Ladies’ Spring, today known as the main bathhouse.
The bathhouse also sells empty gallon jugs for anyone who wants to take some water home — provided they have them in stock.
“I sold 15 to one person on Saturday,” said Leslie Smith, who runs the front desk at the spa. “People swear by that water. They take a bath in it. They wash their hair in it. They cook with it. There’s a woman that comes from China, they come in here and all day long [they fill] five-gallon jugs. Like 50 of them.”
Inside Appalachia didn’t encounter anyone from China when we visited — but we did find someone from Lebanon.
“My friend told me about it a long time ago,” said Fadi Talj. “Then when I moved closer, I realized I’m only 30 minutes away. And that’s when I started coming to get it.”
Talj is from Lebanon originally, and then lived in Frederick, Maryland before moving closer to Berkeley Springs and its water.
“You don’t find many of these places around, so if you find one close, you take advantage of it,” he said.
Dorothy Vesper, a geology professor at West Virginia University, is a fan of Berkeley Springs water, too.
“Every time I go by, I fill my water bottle,” she said via Zoom call. “It’s good stuff.”
Vesper is not sold on the health claims, though. A few of her graduate students have studied Berkeley Springs water. They found there are minerals present: magnesium, as well as potassium, sodium, calcium and other members of the periodic table. But all the chemicals exist in vanishingly small amounts.
“You’d have to drink a lot of it to get enough of anything that was nutrient-helpful,” she said.
The research has yielded some good news. Not all natural springs are created equal. Some are not safe to drink from. Some have been contaminated by their surroundings, while others are really just discharge from old, abandoned coal mines.
Berkeley Springs, on the other hand, is pristine.
“It doesn’t have a metallic [taste]. It’s sort of a soft spring water. I just think it tastes nice,” Vesper said. “I have no qualms whatsoever, I would drink it right out of the spring.”
Aside from the taste, though, Vesper said the spring water is no better for you than what comes out of the tap at home.
So what about those who feel like they’ve been helped by this water? What about those who believe they have been healed by it? Is this all just the placebo effect?
Vesper made clear, she is not a physician, but she has a theory.
“Personally, if you let me go and spend two weeks hanging out at some springs — I’d feel better,” she said.
There might be something to that.
There is a peacefulness at the park among the spring-fed pools and the cherry blossoms. Maybe the benefit Lee and Talj ascribe to the water actually comes from the ritual of returning week after week and bringing water up from the earth, just as our forebears have done for centuries.
If the healing isn’t in the magnesium — maybe it’s in the memories that are mixed in there.
This story contains music by Joseph Haydn and the Staples Singers.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachianfolklife, arts, and culture.